Who has the power on this train?

28 — September — 2019
by Caroline Ellis

There is nothing harder than the softness of indifference.

Juan Montalvo (Ecuadoran essayist and political writer, 1832-1889)

There is a modern pre-occupation with power and privilege. The retort imploring us to ‘check our privilege’ is the latest way of trying to help people understand that they might have opportunities, platforms, power, that others don’t have. 

It’s easy to think power is a simple thing. We either have power or we don’t. It’s easy to think that our power remains static and is the same in any situation or any scenario. For a few people, that is usually the case. Wherever they are, whoever they are with, they are often the most powerful person in the room. When they speak, others listen. When they request something, it happens. They have little fear and few barriers to their actions.

For the rest of us, power is a little more complex. Sometimes we have all the power. Sometimes we have no power at all. If I’m travelling on a train, late at night, I am automatically alert to the risks around me, socialised as a woman to assess potential and real risks in my environment. If a woman in a hijab is sharing my carriage, and another passenger starts verbally abusing her with racist comments, I suddenly have significant power in comparison to her. I can intervene. I can ask the woman if she’s ok. I can pretend that I know her and make conversation. I can get off the train with her. If I feel safe to do so, I can challenge the perpetrator. I also, crucially, have the power to show I don’t agree with the racist agitator. I have the power to show that he doesn’t speak for me.

If I dropped my head, ignored the altercation, the woman in the hijab would presume I agreed with the racist comments. My power would allow me to be indifferent and then I would be abusing that power. Doing nothing is not a neutral act.

The next day, Ruth and I might be on the train. We’re holding hands, clearly a couple. A group of people start harassing us. I look around the carriage at every other person and hope they will intervene. I suddenly feel powerless and am frozen to the spot, unable to act. I am powerless and I presume that everybody on this train agrees with the abuse we’re receiving. A man stands up, putting himself physically between us and the group of people, politely asking them to get off the train. He also tells us he would be reporting the incident, so we didn’t have to. He has used his power in a way that supported us but also showed what sort of world he wanted to be part of. 

It might seem obvious when you’re on a train but these moments of unequal power occur in all sorts of settings. The only woman in a meeting, a junior member of staff, might need to be specifically invited to contribute in order for her expertise to be shared. This could be before, during or after the meeting. You could share the agenda for your meeting in plenty of time so the neurodiverse member of staff has time to prepare and can actively contribute as a result. You don’t always have to be brave to share your power. You do need to be thoughtful.

Our power changes depending on the situation we’re in. The idea that there is a fixed hierarchy of vulnerabilities ignores the reality of the world we live in. The key is to remain alert to when we have the power to act, and to plan for what we might do to support someone who doesn’t have power in that situation.  We all need to be actively inclusive to achieve a more equal society.